Monday, February 26, 2018

I, Tonya (2017)

Portland figure skater Tonya Harding and "the incident," as the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan is referred to in this insanely entertaining movie—and of course the reason we are all here—represented a historical turning point for me in American life, in the wake of Amy Fisher's murder of Mary Jo Buttafuoco. I vividly remember seeing the cover of Newsweek with Nancy Kerrigan's crying face and the headline "Why Me?" It felt like going down a rabbit hole. I didn't understand why at the time. These things took place in January of 1994, playing the overture for what turned out to be a year that never stopped being bizarre, usually in ways congenial to blowing up tabloid celebrity media into more like what we know today. It went from this story to Kurt Cobain's suicide to the OJ Simpson double murder to Michael Jackson marrying Lisa Marie Presley to the baseball strike (first year in decades with no World Series) and finally ending on the Republican takeover of Congress led by Newt Gingrich and a propaganda machine that was only going to get better. Heck, even Guy Debord punched his own clock late in the year, as if he recognized the arrival at last of the real society of the spectacle and didn't want anything to do with it. I think I'm forgetting a few things too. Most of these wild and woolly tales—certainly Harding, Cobain, Simpson, and Jackson/Presley—played remarkably well on 24-hour cable news, by which I mean played constantly. They represented cultural reckonings of one kind and another. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan heralded the class conflict whose name we must not speak. In the vernacular, the way I remember people talking about it at the time, it was a case of White Trash versus White Bread. The one side breaks kneecaps like they've seen in the movies, the other wails, "Why meeee?" (implication: no problem if it's someone else). Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Million Dollar Arm) previously worked this effectively, with such gleefully riffing energy on Our Strange Culture, 10 years ago in Lars and the Real Girl. I, Tonya is just as supercharged with energy, this time mimicking the static talking-heads style of modern low-budget documentaries like Crazy Love and talhotblond, which above all depend on the details of their stories.

So maybe the freewheeling documentary style is fooling me, but until I hear differently I'm accepting the facts as given in I, Tonya, which among other things include Harding (Margot Robbie, in a first-rate performance) straight-up declaring she and Kerrigan had been friends who roomed together (and partied together) in previous skating competitions. I, Tonya is hagiography but of a type I've never seen before, outside of possibly only Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst. It's not making a hero of Tonya Harding nor is it excusing what happened to Kerrigan (though that is downplayed quite a bit, likely for the sake of keeping audience sentiment on Harding's side). In fact, it shows Harding making excuses all the time—nothing is ever her fault. The story is rooted in serious, real, and even tragic events like abuse and domestic violence, but the elements are painfully buffoonish. These people! Like Donald Trump, they should be hilarious, and if you can get far enough away to avoid fallout, they even are hilarious. The clowns and fools who surrounded Tonya Harding, the whole story of the attack on Kerrigan and what it was supposed to be and what it became, is choice stupidity of highest grade. You will laugh, even though it hurts to laugh. Then there is Tonya Harding and her mother (Allison Janney, another great performance), a story I hadn't known at all. Again, I'm accepting at face value what I got from this movie. There are exaggerations and obfuscations but they are obvious and have their purpose. If this was the kind of mother Harding had and this is a fair approximation of their relationship, then, well, it explains a lot (and reminds me of scenes from the documentary Streetwise, another Pacific Northwest classic). More generally, I take the things in I, Tonya as the coming of our current problems, with truth, stupidity, and all related issues, the new American way—and Fox News didn't even exist yet. Which reminds me, I have to wonder what Fox News Nation makes of Tonya Harding and/or this movie at this point. She might be one of their heroes, or she might be considered too liberal. You never know! Anecdotally, here in the PNW she is still reflexively taken as some kind of hero who got some kind of bad deal. I'm sympathetic to the view myself, and I, Tonya actually firms me up on the point ("some kind" being the key qualifier). Tonya Harding got more than her fair share of the lumps in this case and like Patty Hearst in Patty Hearst she's here to say, "Fuck 'em. Fuck them all." See this movie as soon as possible for further details.

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis! I couldn’t turn away. The deeply realistic portrayal of permissiveness in abusive relationships is what kept me on the edge of my seat, but it’s Tonya’s sheer toughness that makes me feel her—not just for her, but even has me rooting. This Tonya was the Rocky Balboa of the 90s—less heart, more selfishness, (and so ironical that she boxed!) and way too many casual accomplices to make me genuinely care enough. But this was a very well done documentary type movie, I liked it.